In late July and August, something remarkable happens in the air above Lake Murray, South Carolina.  Around sunset, hundreds of thousands of purple martins come streaming towards the center of the lake from every direction, swirling together in a massive flock that darkens the sky. After an hour of wheeling and singing they settle down on a small island.

For the past 25 years, Lake Murray has boasted the largest purple martin roost in the United States. The birds gather there in the hundreds of thousands before beginning their epic migration to South America. Every year hundreds of boats full of purple martin admirers crowd the waters around the island. Every year 500,000 birds put on a breathtaking aerial performance.

But not this year.

This year, the boats went out as usual. But the birds didn’t show up.

And so Skunk Bear (NPR’s science tumblr) has gone mobile in search of the missing martins.  We – that’s photojournalist Maggie Starbard and science reporter Adam Cole – have vowed not to return to HQ until we’ve located the errant flock … or until Tuesday morning. Whichever comes first.

We’re starting our search where the birds were last seen: in American backyards. Purple martins on the east coast rely entirely on human-built dwellings to breed, and thousands of humans have taken it upon themselves to provide these nesting colonies. We’re hoping this slightly crazy fellowship of purple martin “landlords” (that’s what they call themselves) can point us in the right direction.

Maybe we’ll find out where the birds went.  Maybe we’ll find out why they are so dependent on humans. And maybe we’ll find out why all these people are so invested in their survival. Stay tuned.

This large bug spent the entire trip back to shore clinging to our boat’s light. A fitting figurehead for a purple martin quest, since purple martins can eat their bodyweight in insects every day.

Did this insect entice a purple martin to swoop down to our boat for a quick snack? No. Did we find the missing flock? I’ll tell you tomorrow.


Found in the back yard of Wendell Rogers (Gable, SC):

  • 74 purple martin gourds on electrified poles*
  • 10 bee hives
  • 5 cars in various states of rehabilitation
  • 2 goats who will not die
  • 1 dog named Remy who likes to chase cars
  • 1 cat named Moe who likes humans and sleeping
  • 1 angry rooster named Satan.** Check out those spurs!

*Snakes used to climb up the polls and eat the purple martins. Wendell is an electrician. He doesn’t have a snake problem anymore.

**Wendell tried to get rid of Satan by offering him to me as a gift. I declined.


A few of the purple martin landlords we’ve met so far:

David McCabe of McCabe’s Bar-B-Que in Manning makes the best pulled pork I’ve ever had. He saves his old mayonnaise jar lids so they can be used as access hatches on purple martin gourds.

Jim Beatson of Sumter grows gourds in his back yard. (“Much to my wife’s displeasure,” he told us. They get in the way of her flowers.) Beatson read that purple martins prefer open areas, so one day while his wife was at work, he cut down a couple of his dogwoods. (Also “much to my wife’s displeasure.”)

Bubba Johnson has taken care of purple martins since he was a boy. He enlisted the help of his neighbors, and now his home town of New Zion is dotted with purple martin colonies.

A bit of background: Hundreds of year ago, purple martins on the east coast started breeding in gourds hung from trees by Native Americans. Now, they rely entirely on human-built housing, and it’s to late to go back. Natural nesting sites like tree cavities have been taken over by aggressive invaders – European starlings and sparrows. It falls to humans to build the houses that allow purple martins to survive.